As people are aware, we love to champion the new guy and whilst some are lucky enough to get a publishing contract, others take a while to get theirs. Here with six books under his belt, Michael J Sullivan takes us through his Cinderella Story, from self-publishing to getting that contract from a major publisher…
I want to thank Gareth for inviting me here today. He asked me to share a little about my publishing journey, which has been a wild and unconventional dream come true.
In the original 1979 Muppet Movie, Kermit sets out with a single goal, “To make millions of people happy.” He runs into Gonzo who is on his way to Bombay India to break into show business. When questioned why he wasn’t going to Hollywood Gonzo responds, “Sure, if you want to do it the easy way!” Bombay is now a major hub for movie production, so the joke doesn’t work as well today, but I can definitely identify with choosing an unconventional path.
I’m talking, of course, about the dreaded “S” word: self-publishing. While today it carries less of a stigma, in 2009 it was considered:
a) The best way to ensure you would never have a professional writing career
b) An act taken only by desperate and delusional people
c) Proof that you didn’t have what it takes to be a real writer
So why did I decide to self-publish? Well, to tell the truth, I didn’t. I had wanted to be an author for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I used to write, bind, and illustrate my own books using my sister’s manual typewriter. As an adult, I stayed home with the kids, and wrote when they napped. We lived modesty, but happily, on my wife’s salary.
Deciding to become a novelist seemed like a long shot, since I had no professional writing education. College had been out of the question (my father died when we I was nine, and we lived off my social security checks and his veteran benefits). I studied writing by reading novels and dissecting the techniques used by authors such as Stephen King, John Steinbeck, and Ayn Rand. After completing twelve books, I finally had written something I considered publishable. The standard submit-reject-repeat cycle went on for quite some time until in 1995 I finally gave up (dramatically vowing never to write creatively again). To me all those years had been an exercise in futility (or perhaps insanity).
Never again is a really long time—especially when you can’t stop ideas from filling your head (another possible indication of insanity). The seeds of The Riyria Revelations had begun to germinate in 1990, and in 2004 I finally broke my vow, but adjusted my goals. While Burden to the Earth had been a finely crafted piece of literary fiction, I decided to go a different route and write something just for fun. I had no intention of publishing; my only benchmark was if the books were something that I wanted to read.
My story might have ended there, but my wife loved the books, believed in me, and made it her mission to find an audience for the series. Robin is damn near unstoppable…upon encountering a wall she’ll dig under, go over, or find a way around it. She amassed her own collection of rejections (more than two hundred in eighteen months), and finally landed me an agent. Cat (yes, that’s her real name), spent most of 2005 building her own rejection pile, and cut me loose when she ran out of places to try.
Undaunted, Robin went the small press route, and Minnesota based Aspirations Media stepped up to the plate. There was no advance, and even if I sold out the entire printing (which I did) the maximum I could make was $3,300. But none of that matter because in October 2008, The Crown Conspiracy was published! We were excited when AMI came back and asked for the second book, scheduling it for April 2009.
Disaster struck in March when AMI announced they had no money for Avempartha’s print run. We had already scheduled store signings and book club appearances so the only way to meet the deadline was to publish it ourselves. One book every six-months seemed like a good schedule to me, so we were forced to stay on the self-publishing track.
By the time the fourth book came out in April 2010, I was seeing some modest success (selling 1,000 books per month). When Wintertide came out in October, sales more than doubled. Robin asked Teri Tobias, who had negotiated a foreign rights deal for us, if she wanted to pitch the series domestically. To be honest, we didn’t think anything would ever come of it—boy, were we wrong.
In mid-October Teri sent out seventeen proposals and asked editors to respond within three weeks. By that time the books were on multiple Amazon fantasy best seller lists, had had hundreds of positive reviews, and were also featured on numerous blogs. I guess that attracted some attention because seven publishers expressed their interest.
One of them was Orbit (the fantasy Imprint of the Hachette Book Group), who made a generous six-figure, pre-emptive offer. Even before submitting, Orbit had been at the top of our list. They were fairly new in the US, an imprint of one of the big-six publishers, and had a track record of choosing quality titles. In just a few years, they were already producing New York Times Best Sellers, and their books were being nominated (and winning) major fantasy awards. Even if another offer came in that was marginally higher, that wouldn’t change our minds. So we shook hands with them in mid-November 2010.
Just when I thought life could get no better, November’s final numbers came in at an astonishing 9,500 books sold. In addition, December, January, and February sold more than 10,000 each. We banked that little nest egg, and combined with Orbit’s advance, and foreign sales, Robin quit her day job in April 2011. After several decades of supporting me, I was now able to return the favor.
The rest, as they say, is history. Orbit decided to combine my six-book series into three, two-book omnibuses:
• Theft of Swords (Nov 2011): The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha
• Rise of Empire (Dec 2011): Nyphron Rising and The Emerald Storm
• Heir of Novron (Jan 2012): Wintertide & Percepliquis
• Percepliquis (Jan 2012) : A standalone edition for fans to complete their sets
The UK release just started, and the US version will be out in a couple of weeks, but already I have plenty of reasons to celebrate:
• Fantasy Book Critic named Heir of Novron #2 of their 5 most anticipated books for Q1 2012
• Library Journal named Theft of Swords their Fantasy Debut for September 2011
• Starbucks selected Theft of Swords for their Digital Network’s Bookish Reading Club (customers can read it free from their in-store wifi starting 12/20/2011).
• UK versions with their own covers and proper English spellings are already for sale
• Foreign translations have been sold for eight countries including: Russia, Spain, France, Germany, Czech Republic, Denmark, Japan, and Brazil
• One of the largest and most respected production houses is creating the audio version
• The SFBC (Science Fiction Book Club) is producing a special edition hardcover
• The head of ICM’s book to film division is pitching the series for movies and television
So there you have it…my Cinderella story. It took me thirty years toiling away before getting noticed by the handsome prince. I’m headed to the ball, and hoping that I won’t turn into a pumpkin. For me, the midnight clock will strike around the end of March 2012 (two months after the last book’s release). By then I might be back with Sally Field’s “You like me; you really, really like me” story. But even if the series falls flat on its face, I’ve already achieved more than I ever thought was possible. I’m eternally grateful to my wife, the early fans who took a chance on a nobody, and the blogging community who has been so instrumental in helping me get the word out. Words cannot express my gratitude for all that you’ve done on my behalf.